This year, I have been very carefully parceling out my reading of British author Elizabeth Chadwick's novels while I wait for her newest releases this fall. Rediscovering her work, and finding out what a terrific, knowledgeable author she is, makes each story a delight to read and experience.
The Winter Mantle is set in the years just after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The new King of England, William the Bastard, has his hands quite full trying to quell any incipient rebellions, and run both England and his own lands in Normandy. He's taken what nobles have survived the battle of Hastings, and brought them as hostages to his court in Normandy, hoping that it will help to slow down if not stop any uprising.
But the King also has some potential rebellion in his own family as well. His niece, Judith, the daughter of his sister Adelaide, is a very angry young woman. Resented by her mother for not being a son, Judith has grown up without affection and has created a hard shell of pride to protect herself from being hurt. When she meets the handsome and friendly Waltheof, she's dazzled both by his good looks and strength.
Waltheof, with his blond, near-Viking looks, and wearing a brilliant blue mantle lined with the fur of a polar bear, is an exotic creature in the Norman court. He's bearded and keeps his hair long, and in a surprising turn, seems not to care very much that his country has been overrun, and he's lost his titles and lands. His fellow hostages see him as a traitor to his own people, the Normans see him as a barbarian, and his only friends seem to be Judith and a young boy, Simon de Senlis, that he saved during an accident.
It's a very delicate balancing act for Waltheof , caught as he is between the Saxons and the Normans, and his desire for Judith is the motivation that keeps him loyal -- for now. When they do marry, at first it seems that there will be peace in their own little corner of England. But old troubles come soon to haunt them both, with tragic consequences to follow for both of them and their daughters, Matilda and Jude.
Matilda, heiress to Huntingdon, knows that she will marry to seal an alliance, but it's not enough for her -- she wants someone to love her. All that she has of her father is her memories of him, and his loss has carved a deep hole in her spirit. When she meets Simon de Senlis, wearing her father's cloak, she feels the same thunderbolt that brought her parents together. But is Simon just after the Huntingdon lands, or does he truly care for Matilda?
I confess, I am a devoted fan of Elizabeth Chadwick's work, and so I tend to look at her work with a bit of a rosy tinge. But I also try to look at her work with a critical eye as well. So far I haven't found anything to complain about. She writes stories that blend historical fact, psychological insight, hands on research as to how people lived then, and a firm belief that love and happiness can survive in times of great change.
Waltheof and Judith's stories here are truly heartbreaking. But what kept me reading was that these were two very human people struggling to achieve their dreams -- and making mistakes along the way. Waltheof may look like the quintessential medieval hero, but he makes some severe faults in judgment that not only affect him but also his family. Ms. Chadwick, bless her, doesn't go the easy way out and have some sort of miracle happen to save them all in a 'happy-ever-after,' but lets the story play out. Matilda and Simon make mistakes too, and again, the author is wise enough to have them work it out, instead of falling back on stereotypes. This was what really sold this novel to me, that these people were flawed, very human, and still had the courage to keep going with their lives and make the best of it that they could.
It's this sort of writing the lifts Elizabeth Chadwick's work out of the run-of-the-mill historical that tend to litter the shelves, and put them firmly into the class of book that makes for good historical fiction. Each novel that I've read from her has been full of exciting characters, an excellent story line, several surprises and a yearning to read more of her work.
This one gets a solid four star rating from me. It's a bit different for a historical novel, but if the reader can handle a setback and a surprise or two, this would make a satisfying read. Happily recommended.
Several characters will make an appearance in a sequel to this one The Falcons of Montabard.
Novels by Elizabeth Chadwick:
The Wild Hunt
The Running Vixen
The Leopard Unleashed
Daughters of the Grail
Shields of Pride
The Love Knot
The Marsh King's Daughter
Lords of the White Castle
The Winter Mantle -- you are here
The Falcons of Montabard
Shadows and Strongholds
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
A Place Beyond Courage
The Time of Singing
To Defy a King
Many thanks to the Books Category Lead Arianej for adding this title to the database for me.
The Winter Mantle
2002, 2007; Little Brown and Company
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